“MUSIC nrvana” is how I’d describe the experiences I had on December 14 and 16, 2017. You see, Cat Stevens and Paul McCartney performed live on those dates respectively in Auckland, New Zealand, and I was one among the thousands who trooped to the sold-out gigs.
Cat Stevens, who now goes by the name “Yusuf,” filled the 15,000-seater Spark Arena for two straight nights. He transformed the huge venue into his private attic, as he shared with the audience not just his songs but also his life journey--from being a teenage pop star to a TB patient, from being a bonafide folk-rock hero to becoming a recluse; from having a near-death experience to being converted to Islam; and finally, to coming out of retirement after 27 years of absence. He auctioned all of his guitars in 1979 at the time of his conversion, and only returned to the pop music stage in 2001, thanks to his then-21 year-old son, Yoriyos, who brought a guitar back into his house.
With three exceptionally-competent back-up musicians, Cat Stevens/Yusuf, who has not lost the beautiful timbre of his voice, sung with heart as he revisited his past hits as well as paid tribute to those who inspired him. Instead of performing only his past hits, the 69-year-old artist created a set list of songs tied to his life and his philosophy, a brave yet enlightening approach.
Brave, indeed, as he covered Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man” dedicating it to record and concert producers who dictated his career early on, and performed “A Bad Night,” a single that flopped and nearly ended his career. In the final quarter of the show, he reflected on the gloomy episode of his life with an emotionally-moving set consisting of “Sad Lisa,” “The Hurt” and “Blackness of the Night.” Crossing from the dark, he exuded hope with The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun,” “See What Love Did to Me,” a new material, and the not-to-be-missed “Father and Son” and “Peace Train.” He returned for an encore that included the up-tempo “Can’t Keep It In” and the well-loved “Morning Has Broken.”
It’s amazing how age has transformed the wild folk-rock star Cat Stevens into a serene and sagely storyteller Yusuf. It didn’t feel like a dragging priestly homily, instead “Cat’s in the Attic” (that’s the title of the concert) was like a thoroughly well-written musical novel about a man who was lost, was misunderstood and later found enlightenment and redemption.
Here was an artist at peace with himself amidst a conflicted world whose Yoda-like aura melted away religiously intolerant people in the audience.
Cat Stevens/Yusuf revisited anthems of old and reflected on the past, while at the same time adding new songs that looked forward to a better world. Even some of his less-known tunes from past albums sounded fresh. Yes, Cat Stevens/Yusuf remains current and relevant. (Next week, one-on-one with Paul McCartney).